Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Visit With Judge Mark Munger To Talk About The Writing Life

Mark Munger is a life-long resident of Minnesota; born in St. Paul, and raised here in Duluth. He spent the first 20 years of his career practicing trial law before becoming a District Court Judge in 1998 where he now serves a four county region of Northeastern Minnesota. Mark, his wife Rene’, and their four sons live along the banks of the wild and scenic Cloquet River north of Duluth.

Judge Munger's work has been published in Writer’s Journal and his essay “Leaving Mayo” was a finalist for the 2000 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Writing Award. I first became aware that our sitting judge was also a writer through Mike Savage whose Savage Press published his first novel. Today, his books are brought public by means of his own publishing house, Cloquet River Press.

EN: What prompted you to become an author?

Mark Munger: I've always been an avid reader and I had a desire to emulate the writers I read at a very early age. I still have my first novel, a picture book I wrote in 1st grade. It's buried in my closest in a scrapbook in a closet somewhere in the house. The title of that modest effort was The Piratas and the Two Man (The Pirates and the Two Men). Hopefully both my storytelling and my spelling have improved with age! I was also inspired by my maternal grandmother who was a teacher and who died when I was very young. My mom had three black, leather bound journals on the bookshelf at home. Each one was filled with poems written by my grandmother or poems written by others that inspired her. I have those journals at my house and it's funny: in going through them the other day, I found a few of my own poems I'd crammed into the margins as a kid! Bad poems, to be sure, but attempts at writing none-the-less. Then, in 8th grade, a wonderful English teacher, Miss Infelise (now Judy Bonovetz) challenged me to write something over summer break. When I came back to school for 9th grade, I presented her with an entire children's picture book, complete with color illustrations. Fast forward to life after college and law school. I was facing a lower back fusion and my wife knew that I'd need a project to fill the time I was off work. Again, I was challenged to write. That's when I began work on my first adult novel, The Legacy. It took three years to write and wasn't published for a decade but that's where it all started: Being inspired and challenged by the women in my life. Being a bit OCD also helps!

EN: Are all your novels legal courtroom types of stories on the order of Grisham and Erle Stanley Gardner?

MM: Not at all. I wrote my first novel, The Legacy, during a time when Grisham's The Firm and A Time to Kill were both on the NYT's bestseller list. But being that I'd been a practicing lawyer by that time for about a decade, I wanted to exercise the non-legal part of my brain. So, I chose a topic that interested me: WW II Yugoslavia (I'm 1/4 Slovenian). I coupled historical fiction with the contemporary murder of two old men to create a past/present story that seemed to do well with both readers and critics. My second novel, Pigs, a Trial Lawyer's Story is a morality play set against the backdrop of the courtroom. I've drawn upon my legal expertise in other novels and short stories, including my newest novel, Boomtown. But in between the legal "stuff", I've written contemporary first-person fiction in a woman's voice (Esther's Race), historical fiction (Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset), and contemporary murder mystery/thrillers (Laman's River). I love being self-published because it gives me a chance to explore genres and topics and settings that I might not be able to dabble in if a publisher was driving the bus.

EN: Your latest is Boomtown. When and where does the story take place and what's the book's real aim?

MM: Boomtown is a present-day story set in Ely, Grand Marais, and Duluth. It reprises many characters from past novels, but, because it is a legal thriller/mystery, it draws most heavily upon actors who appeared in Laman's River and Pigs. Set slightly in the future, when copper/nickel mines are actually operating in NE Minnesota, two young workers die at a mining site. Is it murder or an accident? I'm not trying to be preachy or make a statement about mining. Instead, I'm drawing from a real life tragedy that, as a trial lawyer, I was involved with as an attorney, to tell a story. The emotions, legal wrangling, and scenery are real: the story is completely fiction.

EN: What's your favorite part of writing a novel? I enjoy creating characters and naming them.

MM: Yes, I agree. Getting to know the fictional folks who populate my books is likely the most satisfying part of writing novels and short stories. I also enjoy the learning that goes with taking on a subject or topic or location that requires research. For example, I'm beginning work on my third Finnish-themed historical novel. Being that I am not Finnish and not an expert in Finnish history, getting deep into the "whys" and "whats" of that interesting nation's past is very satisfying and broadens my understanding of the world and its people.

EN: How many books have you published and as a sitting St. Louis County judge, but are a husband, father and avid outdoorsman, how do you find time to write?

MM: I have ten books in print. 7 novels, 1 short story collection, 1 collection of outdoor essays, and a mammoth biography (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story). My writing protocol is to get up (like today!) at 5:00 a.m., put on the coffee, fire up the iMac, and begin. You can't write if you don't put your butt in the chair! And because I am so active in my family and personal and recreational life, it gives me more material to draw upon when I am working on a fictional scene or character. Let's face it. There are very few (I think something like 10%) folks who claim writing as a full-time vocation. Most folks who write have other jobs. Many are teachers in MFA programs but there have always been doctors and lawyers and farmers and tradesmen and women who've written during their "off" hours.

EN: What advice would you give to others who feel they have a great story inside them but have never written a book before?

MM: Every month I put a new quote up on my white board in my writing studio, The board has a brief listing of all the events I'm slated to attend during the month. It's very functional and is a back up to a paper calendar I keep on another wall in the same space, the calendar on my blog (www.cloquetriverpress.com) where all my readers can see what I am up to, and of course, my iPhone. But the quote of the month might be the most important thing on the white board because it's meant to rev me up and get me motivated. This month, it's Stephen King leading me on: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write." So that's where it starts. You can't write anything of value, be it fiction or nonfiction, if you don't read the great writing that's gone before you. Then, it's time. Butt in the chair time; fingers to the keyboard time. Folks often come up to me at events and ask the same question you asked above, "where do you find the time?" Simply put, you make it. Thanks for the questions. Edit as you see fit.

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Lots of great information here, Mark. The only thing I would quibble with is the number of full-time writers. Seems a bit high. There are a million books a year being produced, but even these are not all full-time writers.

The net net is that it makes me want to find and dig into some of your books. Thank you for sharing.

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Meanitme... life goes on all around us. What's your story?

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